The act of killing, not least when it is violent, can strike us as repellent and also as strangely fascinating. In certain circumstances, such as when it goes beyond a crime of passion and receives a degree of social approval, the phenomenon of killing calls out for explanation. What leads us to kill and how easy is it to cope with the act before and after? In his book Killing: Misadventures in Violence, Melbourne writer Jeff Sparrow recounts his personal attempt to understand the psychology of people who kill.
Sparrow’s starting and finishing point is wartime killing, an interest sparked by the discovery of a combat trophy in the form of a Turkish soldier’s semi-rotted head. Such souvenirs of battle, real or photographic, were and are by no means rare.
Sparrow is also interested in the social and psychological features of the violent killing of animals. Indeed, throughout the book there are suggestions made about some structural similarity in the nature of killing human beings and killing animals.
Here are two competing arguments on the psychology of killing in war. The first says that most people are able to kill in war without great difficulty or personal cost. Moreover, a number of soldiers come to find it meaningful and even thrilling. Ordinary life then appears disappointingly mundane and routine.
The second argument says that people have a biological inheritance which makes it stressful, painful, and often impossible to kill other humans. We are like other animals that are biologically inhibited from dispatching their opponents. That is why many soldiers apparently do not discharge their weapons, or aim above the heads of the enemy.
In assessing these claims, Sparrow realises that they share a misconception. What they overlook is the cultural setting. One social factor is that most people are decidedly not brought up as killers. So what enables people to directly and dramatically end lives and how does it affect them?
Consider the assignment of executing convicted felons in the USA. Once both skilled and publicly applauded, executioners nowadays are considered to have an unenviable and somewhat dirty job.
As a result of his investigations and interviews, the writer identifies some features of modern executions that limit emotional involvement.
It seems to be that responsibility for the execution can be somewhat diffused by being a part of a group, each person being a team member with a particular circumscribed role to play.
Also, the act can be turned into a practiced and orchestrated procedure. It can then become automatic and mechanical, the movement from live individual to dead body seeming an almost inevitable progression
In addition, the killing squad may want to or be induced to regard the death-row inmate not as an individual human being but in the abstract.
And yet emotional detachment or indifference to the act and its victim may sometimes be pierced. One occasion for this reversal, says Sparrow, can arise when something happens to cause the person doing the killing to see the other as an individual of some kind and not a mere nameless abstraction. Catching the eye of the person sitting in the electric chair might be such a moment.
Another interesting contention is that those who kill other people without much feeling may later on find that they are appalled at their own lack of emotional involvement. In some cases of killing, there may be psychological repercussions of detachment and spectrums of stress may result.
When Sparrow compares killing humans to killing animals, he does not mean to say that the psychological features are exactly the same. Moreover, he is not making direct moral claims of similarity. In fact, his analysis is consistent with a range of ethical positions.
He simply notes his own unremarkable aversion to killing animals and asks how killing does or does not affect others. Of course, for some people and for some cultures the question will barely register; for others, it will be quite real.
In the course of his first experience assisting a professional kangaroo shooter, Sparrow observes how quickly his attention switches from the shock of seeing the animals killed and mutilated to his competence in loading bodies onto the ute. He suggests that his desire not to embarrass himself in front of others resembles the preoccupation soldiers have reported in times of war as overpowering any reluctance they might have in firing upon the enemy.
His visit to a modern abattoir yields another possible mechanism of psychological adjustment. Here, the violence of the industrial killing is so repetitive, massive, and mechanical that it soon feels natural and even mundane. Through this desensitisation, the animals themselves are relatively easily viewed as bits of an industrial process.
On the other hand, writes Sparrow, there is always the possibility of moments of recognition where the victim is transformed from an object into a living creature. Again, it could be the moment when the terrified gaze of an individual creature catches the eye.
Although Sparrow does not consider them, we might also wonder about the psychological effects on veterinarians of being in positions that demand killing certain animals.
For example, there is surely a difference in the psychological dimensions of euthanasing terminally ill animals as opposed to killing healthy animals – both in private practice, and even more acutely, in shelters where there are vast numbers of discarded but healthy animals.
Another place where psychological adjustment, desensitisation, and/or stress may occur is in animal laboratories. Understanding these factors is a task both for psychology and for philosophy.